May 25, 2013
Dispatches From Cairo: Game of Death
Posted on Feb 5, 2012
We asked Lauren Unger-Geoffroy, an international artist who lives in Cairo, to share her perspective of life in Egypt after the revolution. In this entry, amid breaking news and ongoing violence, she writes about Egypt’s stunned reaction to a soccer riot that killed scores of fans.
CAIRO—Oh, Egypt. Oh, Arab Spring. Another tailspin into the worst of expectations and reactions, the worst of reactionary strategies, the no-plan of emotional and boiling resistance, leaves us in a gray confusion of deception and distrust, with the young revolution holding a single, understandable focus in fury: Get out! Get out!
We have been in shock since Wednesday when the boldly rebellious and prone-to-violence “Ultras”—a national collection of fan clubs supporting clashing football [soccer] teams that has been at the front line of the revolution—fell into the easy trap of their own tendencies. Against a backdrop of past, frequent scuffles between opposing fans, the stage was set for a tragedy.
Now, there is gore on stadium seats, and post-riot images include a blood-soaked Reebok shoe lying against the fence, its lace trailing.
Seventy-six people were killed in 15 minutes at a football match, many of them innocent teenagers. More than a thousand were injured. A TV announcer yelled in horror “Oh God! What are they doing!” as thousands among the 20,000 Ultra fans of the Masry team, the winning team, incomprehensibly rushed the field after the final goal and chased and attacked the losing team, Cairo’s el Ahly, and its 2,000 Ultras and regular supporters. Many in the stadium rushed down to the field, either in panic or to participate in the mayhem. People were trampled and heads were smashed, people were stabbed. The lights went out. The TV announcer was shrieking and sobbing. Minutes before this insane violence started, the massive crowd had been chanting in unison “Down with the military regime!”
The facts are these:
1. Port Said Stadium security personnel, who hold a grudge against the Ultras, did not keep out thugs who entered the stadium with bludgeons and knives and fireworks. Many Egyptians believe these thugs to have been hirelings of the government, men paid to create a distraction to bolster the agenda of military authorities.
2. The security people did not intervene when the Ultras rushed the field and began attacking the visiting Ahly team and its Ultra supporters, who some months ago trashed the Port Said Stadium.
3. Innocent spectators who could not escape were mowed down.
4. Security had padlocked a fence, preventing pursued spectators from escaping.
5. Stadium lights were turned off at the peak of the violence.
Doctors say most of the deaths and severe injuries in the riot were caused by concussions, cuts and suffocation.
The Ahly team and some of its supporters ended up barricaded in the team’s media room and locker room. TV spectators heard one player screaming, “Another guy just died in front of me in here!”
Across the country, Egyptians were in shock and sickened.
Call-in lines were set up for people to find out if relatives had survived the violence. A mother was on TV as she phoned from the Cairo train station, where she waited with thousands of others for the train returning from Port Said. When the names of the dead were announced, she heard that of her 17-year-old son. Her screams and sobs were heart-wrenching. Many of us wept throughout the night.
One military spokesman said, “We could not intervene, that was the job of the minister of the interior CSF [Central Security Forces]. We don’t want any confrontations with the people.”
It all stinks. All of the purported causes and conspiracy theories are sickening. There were more people killed last Wednesday night than in the worst night of the revolution.
In the three days after the riot, and since the first anniversary of the revolution’s terrible Jan. 28, 2011, a rare wave of crime occurred in Cairo—five bank robberies (one armored car), almost unheard of in Egypt; four kidnappings; three shootings. All so uncharacteristic and oddly clumped.
Egyptians are divided into those disgusted with the uncontrolled violence of the football fans and those whose anger is directed at the source of ongoing public frustration: the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Fifty-one people were eventually arrested in the stadium violence, and most Egyptians agree that the security personnel behaved poorly. An investigation is under way. Theories among the public about the cause of the bloodletting vary, but most center on the SCAF.
Thousands massed till 4 a.m. at the train station in Cairo to await the dead and the injured and other survivors returning from Port Said, and they marched the following day to Tahrir Square and the Ministry of the Interior. Many others sympathizing with them and frustrated with the regime’s suspected continued dissimulation and manipulation joined their number. There were similar demonstrations in Alexandria, Suez—all over Egypt. Once again, the people were in the street, in rage and armed with rocks, faces covered with gas masks in preparation for the confrontation they were itching for.
For some time now, on social networks and signs and in graffiti, many young men have been expressing a desire for martyrdom. It is a cultural phenomenon one must understand. Being a martyr, dying for a cause, is an honor. It is heroic. Life has no future, and martyrs are heroes revered and immortalized in media, on walls, in images for all the people, for history. Their families will be sad over their loss but honored. Heaven is assured for heroes.
Thus it was with leaden hearts that Egyptians expected the worst in the riot’s aftermath.
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